Hexcrawl High: He saw everything as far as you can see

So much like God when creating the world I had reached the stage in my campaign prep where I needed to populate the hexcrawl with people, animals and the admixtures of the two ubiquitous in every fantasy setting. This is the step I’m currently on, even though we rolled up the characters for the campaign yesterday I still don’t have everything in this step nailed down. Which means I’ve got about five days to bang the rest out in the shed. No worries.

Now this step has been slightly complicated by two different things. The first of these is that I’ve decided to try to integrate some digital tools with this campaign. It’s my hope that these tools will allow me to take care off and remember the smaller details that often got away from me the last time I ran D&D. There are a fair few online tools for D&D. But a lot of these seem to rely on having an internet connection or a computer in front of you. Which won’t be the case for me so their utility is relegated to campaign prep. However while looking through recommendations I came across the idea of using a Onenote notebook to organise and run your campaign. Now I’d seen this recommendation before, for a number of other uses as well so I figured it was about time to give it a go. I’ll spare you the tedious tale of getting it up and running on my PC, suffice to say that for some reason it did not want to play nice with my old Microsoft account, but in the end I got it running with a new account and the syncing between the free desktop app, the free online version and the free version on my iPad seems fairly seamless and hassle free.

I decided to create a “core” D&D notebook and then a notebook specifically for the campaign in question. I could copy relevant pages from the core notebook into the campaign notebook which would save some time. Which it has done. But instead of keeping my ideas for the campaign in my head and in cryptic notes that I generally misplace having to type everything up is a bit slower and does require me to sit at my main monitor and type. Which I’m not the hugest fan off. Luckily I got a head start on the core notebook by using the one freely available from this site. I’ve also been trying to make use of D&D Beyond but havent quite worked out a good way to do that yet. The free portions of Beyond seem pretty good but I’m unsure if my players will want to sign up for it and I’m absolutely sure that I am in my fuck paying the full price of a physical book just to have its information available in Beyond.

Anyhow, as I mentioned above the “Populate” step has been stymied by two things. I’ve outlined the first so now its time to talk about the second. But first let’s talk about rail-roading, the perennial bugaboo of RPG campaigns everywhere. If you’re not familiar with the term it’s when the GM forces the players to follow the pre-established plot for an adventure, making them stick to the rails by putting up uncrossable and often nonsensical barriers in their path. Sort of like when you’re playing a computer game and can’t get to somewhere because of invisible walls. Considering that one of the main appeals of an RPG is the freedom of choosing what you do its plain to see why rail-roading is generally reviled. However, let’s be honest for a second, the vast majority of published and home written adventures and campaigns are at least a bit of a railroad. Considering that non-linear storytelling can be hard to pull off, and unrewarding, in a rpg context it’s not surprising that a linear narrative lends itself to being a bit of a straight line. But the difference is that when it’s a non-explicit railroad the GM is more like a tour guide than a driver. You still probably have to get from A to B to C, but the players can choose how they get there, and sometimes they get lost or decide to just say fuck it and not go there. Or you can plan your adventure as a big sprawling decision tree. But the key point I’m trying to highlight is that events are generally linear and mostly tied into one large over-arching plot. Of course this isn’t the only way to plan an adventure or a campaign but based on figures pulled from my arse I’d be happy to suggest that it’s the most popular. As an interesting aside whether its a “natural” way to write adventures or whether it’s how people have been taught to plan adventures due to published modules is something to ponder. Oh, as a sort of addendum, It’s also fairly common, especially for level based games, to insure that most of the conflict the PC’s get involved in is (barring rampant stupidity) “level appropriate”.

The thing is though, this style of adventure and campaign planning doesn’t work for a Hexcrawl campaign. Now you could of course use hexmaps in a normal campaign but the Hexcrawl “proper” is the quintessence of “old school” sandbox play. So if I were setting up a normal adventure or campaign I’d generally consider one big “trigger” that set the events leading to the adventure or the campaign in motion. Now you can play about with this, having it happen before or after play, having the players change the conditionals of it and what have you. But this doesn’t really work for the Hexcrawl campaign. Instead of one big trigger what you need is lots of little triggers, and I do mean lots, even if the wilderness is largely uninhabited you still need encounter tables for at least each major campaign type and a standard encounter table has twenty entries. You also have to account for the fact that the PC’s triggering one trigger may trigger another, and that while you will be scrupulously ignoring proper challenge levels you still need to make sure you have a range of challenge options so the PC’s can avail of level appropriate challenges if they seek them out. I’m not sure if its more work or simply different work from what I’ve come to expect from campaign prep. I will say though that its taking a while to get my head around, I think in part because I’m used to writing and arranging notes and stats and such in a particular way and its hard to figure out what the best way to go is with this new (to me) approach.

It also makes “stealing” side quests and shorter adventures that you could work into your own larger campaign a bit harder. Having the PC’s spending three levels of time clearing out a dungeon feels like it’s straining against the goals of the campaign. What you want are lots of small or even mini encounters and adventures that will take a session or so to resolve but can be weaved into the larger tapestry of the parties adventures. Hell to be honest this isn’t even stuff I’ve really got to yet as I’m still at the earlier nitty gritty stages of populating the map i.e. deciding what settlements there are, what size their population is, what monster lairs are in the area and so on. You wouldn’t believe the amount of time I spent (wasted) this week reading about realistic fantasy economies and demographics based on the records of late and early medieval economics and agriculture. Ended up returning to my old friend the Domesday Book (which I’d honestly had my fill off when I was trying to come up with a population algorithm for the white whale computer game I know I’ll never make). This wasnt helped when, as I mentioned in my last post, I came across a more up to date map, from the very talented Mike Schley. While more detailed than other maps I’d found, and certainly nicer looking, it wasnt too far from the hexmap I came up with. In the end I did extend the snow line and marshes on my map a bit but left it at that. As the cartographers page mentions it came from Dragon #177 which I actually had a copy of thanks to a misguided subscription. Unfortunately the article wasnt much use to me, as I’d already decided to downplay Witch Knight influence and worse, it gave a line or two on every fucking named settlement on the map other that then three which fell in or close to my maps location.

But I think I’ve got all the settlements and well-known points of interest nailed down. I also tried to come with a hook for each one and I’ve certainly got some stuff to develop there. What I really need to do next is to sit down and figure out what I’m going to do with the encounter tables. Do I go with the classic combat heavy ones (which laziness reminds me I have a copy of in the 3rd edition Forgotten Realms GM’s Guide)? Do I go with the hybrid tables we see an example off in the 5th edition Dungeon Masters Guide which combine social and exploration elements with combat? Or do I try to roll all exploration and encounter stuff into one hybrid table as outlined in this article? Each have their pros in cons, both in terms of prep and in terms of use at the table. So it’s very late Monday or very early Tuesday and that’s where I am. I didn’t mention it but I’ve also been pouring through various monster manuals, official, third-party and even from other games (well Pathfinder) and trying to pick out monsters that seem to fit and that I either a) like or b) feel that I can get some mileage out off. Unfortunately my last campaign churned through quite a few of my favourite monsters and I do so dislike repeats, so there’ll be no Drow, no Duergar, no Mimics, no Mindflayers, no Gricks, no Piercers, (thankfully) no Kuo-Toa, no Demon Lords, and so on. Though really does a Mindflayer of Thoon rrrreeallly count as being the same as a mindflayer? I mean, just look how fucking buff they are.

So my goal by the time I type up my next post, in a transparent attempt to distract myself from game prep, is to have ironed out the trigger for getting the PC’s started, and a little mini adventure to get them back into the swing of things. I’ll also need to have encounter tables for all terrain types done and notes written up for all hexes within a day or twos travel of the starting area. There are a number of hexes on the map which will be for all intents and purposes uncrossable until later in the PC’s career so its not like I have to do all (ugh) 360 before the first session. As well as that part of that point of setting it in a wilderness area is that a number of those hexes will be fairly unremarkable. Also gotta keep in mind the fun fact that the horizon starts at 2.9 miles, just less than half a hex as it turns out (kudos to the six mile hex once again).

Vent your spleen